Written by Eric Sperrazza
Since May is Mental Health Awareness Month, it’s a perfect time to raise awareness of several key truths, the first of which is that, mental illness, in all its forms, is very real. Not only is it scary and debilitating for those suffering from stress, anxiety, depression, and many, many other disorders, mental illness is not cured by someone simply telling you to “Cheer up!”
A second truth is that most people are unaware of the resources that are available to help them deal with mental illness… and that’s where organizations like Backline come in.
I’m a grown man in my forties, a father of four kids who runs marathons, trains Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and makes his living as a public speaker for a Fortune 100 company. I exude positivity & confidence in all aspects of my life to the naked eye and am perceived as the textbook extrovert.
“Never a bad day!” reads all over me, whether you cross paths with me at work, a PTA meeting, the gym, or even on a sea of wrestling mats. You would never know in all of our pleasantries that I suffer from mental illness. Seems uncanny, I know.
As a child in the 80’s, I was saddled with the “ADD” label (Attention Deficit Disorder). Back then, schools singled you out and urged parents to pump you up with Ritalin, thus ensuring that everyone knew you were not “normal.” Normal I was not! Sitting still was no easy task. I could feel something dying to move, even though I was asked to be still.
The impulse to fidget, kick, move, get up or blurt out a thought was so overpowering that it couldn’t be contained. That lack of impulse control bled into bigger scenarios that caused a lot of childhood grief. I, not only was disorganized and lacking focus, but I also had no interest in school work and struggled to understand it. I knew I had to pay attention and comprehend. I knew if I didn’t, I would be in trouble. I certainly didn’t want to be in trouble, and yet try as I might, if my brain decided to hit the OFF switch, the numbers and letters on my textbook pages were hieroglyphics and I was relegated to looking out the window and daydreaming of adventures and music, guaranteeing more punishment in the future.
As I got older, I built careers around short-term gratification, spontaneous and dynamic behaviors, and creative outlets, utilizing my “ADD” as a source of strength and not a weakness. I am grateful for that level of foresight as many of my peers were not as lucky or as capable to weaponize this mental imbalance for their benefit.
I have also been consistently treated for an Anxiety Disorder for the last 11 years of my adult life. This anxiety has spawned panic attacks that mirror heart attacks. So much so, that I have wound up in the emergency room, having electrocardiograms done, on more than one occasion.
It’s hard to explain but, for me, it can be a perfectly normal night, and then a thought slips into the front lobe of my brain, maybe something I’m casually worried about or should be concerned over. Then, for no good reason, my brain puts a giant magnifying glass on that thought, holds it there, making that thought bigger and bigger, followed by a chain of worst-case scenario thoughts.
The entire time, it becomes wildly hard to breathe. I feel my esophagus close and my ability to swallow is gone. As soon as I focus my thoughts on my physical well-being, it intensifies the panic and circles everything back around, more elevated than before. There is no lever that turns these attacks off by someone saying, “Just calm down.” If anything, that makes it even worse. I have to physically get up and move from where I am, change my vantage point, breathe in a very specific fashion and forcibly change the proverbial View Finder slide in my mind. Nowadays, I can feel when I’m slipping and I can do my best to cut it off at the pass… but not always.
Then, there are the few real bouts with Depression that, quite frankly, are the worst of all. To the layman, I can only say this: Imagine an overwhelming feeling of an empty sadness blanketed over you for such a prolonged period of time that you operate your day-to-day life completely void of joy. You feel sunk in a hole that’s so very dark and very cold. You just keep falling deeper and deeper with no relief. You believe that no one could possibly understand and any cries for help would just be yelling into the abyss.
So, there you sit, and even in a room full of people that love you, you feel hopelessly and utterly alone. Society believes that the next step in this is self-harm… and for many it is. But there is another avenue that depression takes you down that nothing prepares you for and that is the false feeling of strength.
With my experiences, you can be sad for so long that it turns into resentment and anger. With no feeling in you that there is anything to lose, that anger takes the wheel, masquerading as a new form of bravery. It creates hesitation to find relief because, although you hurt so deeply, you are afraid you won’t advocate for yourself, as vehemently. Never realizing at the moment, that it is not fiery strength boiling in you, but depressive poison.
Yet, through it all, I found music as my Sherpa through these various mental and emotional moments of my life. My music helped me focus when I was mentally bouncing off the walls. It let me know my feelings were not made up, but valid, expressed in a song from a venerable stranger.
In some cases, I was able to find solace from those songs… even peace. I even have playlists of music that help guide me back home to a place of tranquility when my anxiety begins to get away from my control.
That being said, music has had such a profound effect on me. I’ve found myself obsessed with who these people were that created the music so close to my heart and mind.
As I watched interviews and read about musicians, I was less than surprised to find how prevalent mental illness was amongst this community. Of course it is! How could anyone articulate such complex emotions with such diverse brushes and not speak from a 1st person vantage point?
In fact, just to be able to translate these confessions to you all on the world wide web, I have the Alice in Chains’ Jar of Flies album playing just to remind me of the headspace I am trying to communicate. (I’m not sure there is a better reflection of a troubled and depressed mind than hearing the late Lane Staley haunt you through your speakers, track after track.)
That brings me to the issue of finding help. You see, for someone like me that has a job, health insurance, and the same address in suburbia, structuring a mental health plan is relatively painless (once you muster the gumption to do so).
Musicians, especially those struggling on the rise to stardom, however) don’t find getting help as easy. Although their pain sells records, it doesn’t always result in a long and happy life. So, I went on a mission to find what resources are available to those that don’t have the luxury of a stable nine-to-five life.
I came to discover Backline, a national non-profit organization that connects struggling folks in the music industry, along with their families, with mental health, recovery, and wellness resources.
Recently, I had a chance to speak with Hilary Gleason, co-founder of Backline, and asked about the organization’s inception and mission.
“It started with the losses of two amazing musicians to suicide,” said Gleason. “Their losses struck a community that very much overlaps in terms of fans in the music industry. Losing these two artists in the span of just a few months was really a rallying moment. I started to reach out to people in the music industry to see how we could take better care of one another.”
What was birthed from this tragedy was a bridge to provide individualized support to people in the music industry. Of course with Backline acting as a custom concierge service of sorts, that guides individuals in needs to outlets like MusiCares and Sweet Relief. These outlets are able to begin the process of assistance, both monetarily and otherwise, to guide the person(s)-in need, a path to mental wellness.
Further, Backline goes so far as to find therapists in whatever state they are in that can support their efforts in care. Thus, taking the “guesswork out of it all,” as Gleason had said. “A first stop where people can say ‘I’m struggling and I want therapy or a Drug Treatment Center and where do I start?'”
The best part? Backline is not exclusive to musicians or even their families. Backline is open to help anyone seeking their assistance.
When talking with Hilary, a very esoteric question rose to the top about mental health and the music industry: Is it that musicians are more likely to have mental health issues, or does living life in the industry create mental health issues?
With battle-tested experience now in this field, Gleason had to say this, “Oftentimes, we see these creative individuals suffer from negative emotions like stress, anxiety, and depression at a higher rate than those that don’t identify as creative. But, in the (music) industry, there are so many factors that can exacerbate mental health challenges. Like lack of routine, inconsistent income, long nights and long days, lack of sleep, and even long times away from family. Even the struggles of having to be on social media and the challenges that come along with that. So, we see that as both the chicken AND the egg.”
So where would one go to begin to find help?
A simple trip from any web browser to https://backline.care/ will bring you to Backline‘s homepage. At the top, there is a link that says ‘GET HELP.’ From there, simply select ‘CONNECT WITH A CASE MANAGER’ and you can begin to utilize Backline to customize and structure a mental health playbook with resources like Doctors that even work at discount rates or pro bono, right where you are at, as well as arteries for long term assistance and mental healthcare.
For those that want to support this fantastic non-profit, there is even a link on the homepage to donate, as well as more information on what the organization is and the lengths they will go to selflessly help others in need.
I am grateful, not only for the time Hilary Gleason spent educating me further on what her organization is all about but also for the service that it provides to any and all who are brave enough to reach out and take that first step in getting better.
Today, we need our songwriters and storytellers more than ever; whether it is to excite us, motivate us, or just to let some kid know who is sitting in his bedroom in Queens, New York, listening to a CD, feel like he is not so alone in his thoughts and feelings.
In a way, Backline is not just serving the music industry, but the entire world.
Visit Backline at :